A Lenten Prayer And Confession of Sins

For this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed,  and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. ~ Ezekiel 16:49 (NIV)

How many times, O Lord, did I sit silently as Your children huddled in cold homes? How many times did I choose a night of Netflix and Hulu binge watching while my elderly neighbor sat in unending silence? How many times did I choose to waste away in my freedom rather than enter into the hell of incarceration with the suffering, the broken, the hurt, the hopeless?

I cry in outrage as I listen to wealthy men explain why the poor and the elderly are no longer productive–why we should no longer invest in their well-being. I shout at the walls, rage at the news, and greive in my heart for those whose suffering will amplify, for those whose voices will be weakened and ignored. 

But as I search my heart this season of Lent–as I pick away at the things that have built up in my heart, in my conscience–the things that have separated me from You, I realize my silence has made me complicit. My comfort made me reluctant to demand Your justice. I sat by, idly, distracted by the things of this world, only to find that the worse had become commonplace. I opened my eyes and saw the shadows of Sodom had engulfed us all. That arrogance and complacency had claimed us all and the poor and the needy were being crushed.

For my silence, forgive me.

For the sins of my complacency, which gave birth to the sins of a selfish, unconcerned society, forgive me.

And give me strength.

The wilderness is a frightening place and my sojourn has just begun, but the weight of a barren place is taking its toll. I yearn for the lush valley, again. I yearn for the peaceful places beside the still waters. I yearn for the bounteous pastures. 

But I must finish this journey and stare deep into my own soul. It is there that I confront the darkness of evil, where the devil has hidden in the corners, and I must resist the temptations of my own heart. 

In this desolate place, let me find my voice. Let me find courage. Let me find a faith in You and in Your justice. Let me cross this dry place and come out on the other side, declaring that Your Kingdom has come, on Earth, as it is in Heaven. Let me cry the tears You cry for Your hurting children. Let me hear the cry of Your people, calling to You for a justice this world will never give them. And let me be a laborer in Your kingdom. 

Forgive me my sins.

And give me a message to carry to the people–a message from Your own heart. Amen.

One Word at a Time

It was about four years ago that I decided to take my practice of spiritual writing up a notch and to dedicate myself to writing a post each day during Lent.

How that season played out was not what I expected. I assumed I would write my simple little devotions and thoughts–and a handful would read them. But I didn’t expect that one post would create so much drama and conflict in my life.

In those four years since I have learned so very much more about myself, about God, and about my relationship with God.

But I have also felt heartbreak like I never knew was possible.

One would think that heartbreak might be a bad thing… and in many ways (one of which I will address in a moment) it did. But mostly the heartbreak forced me into a place where I had to trust in God so much more than I ever had before.

By facing the heartbreak day-after-day, having to seek out the signs of a Living God still pulsing under the surface, searching for the beauty in an ugly moment, reminded me that God is still more powerful than all the hate and hurt and suffering in the world. Each day, each new moment of heartbreak, was another opportunity for the Spirit to rise up like a phoenix from the ashes and catch me up in the whirlwind of the Spirit’s movement.

So, as I approach this new Lenten season–the last I will be spending in this particular town–I find myself thinking about the first Lenten season I spent here and how much I’ve change and grown over the years. For the most part, its been for the better, I think. I’m more certain of who I am as a beloved Child of God. I’m more certain about my calling and what direction it is taking me. I’m more certain that God has called me to be in ministry to the marginalized and disenfranchised–particularly the LGBTQ+ community.

Yet, as I mentioned, there have been some not-so-positive effects of heartbreak and I have to tackle those and reclaim them in my own life.

Somewhere along the way, I let go of one of my most cherished spiritual disciplines: writing. It wasn’t just that I stopped writing publicly… I stopped journaling and creating in general. It was as if the greatest outlet I’d had since childhood to pour our my soul to God had been stolen away and beaten to a pulp.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I had a strange dream–most of the details I won’t bore you with… but as it ended I came face-to-face with an old college professor who has since passed away, Dr. Richards. He was also a priest and a friend with whom I stayed in contact until he died. In this dream he asked me point-blank what happens to my blog when I don’t update it. I confessed that I haven’t been updating it because every word I type is burdened by depression and anxiety about how people will receive it, what their reaction will be, or how they’ll treat me. To this, Dr. Richards simply said, “You’ve just got to write it one word at a time until you get it all out.”

So, here I am. I’ve come full-circle to a brand new Lent. Once again I’m at crossroads in my life and I’m wandering out into the wilderness to pray to God for these forty days and forty nights… and I’m going to do it one word at a time.

A Year of Change Is Coming

speak-truthWhen I began this ministry path by heading off to seminary in 2006, I was on fire with the possibilities of how God could use me. I knew that throughout my life I had been drawn to people who were on the fringes, people our churches often overlook. I didn’t fully know how that would shape my ministry, but I knew God had plans to use this tattooed, pierced (at the time, not anymore), Straight Edge, Billy-Joel-loving, high-liturgy-admiring, walking contradiction.  But God was going to use me.

And let me tell you–God worked on me hard those three years in seminary. I began as someone who identified as a right-leaning moderate and I viewed myself as being far more conservative that my classmates at the uber-liberal Iliff School of Theology. Until I realized that we all had the same desire–to see God’s Kingdom established here on earth (“Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”–the new heaven and new earth from Revelation, you know). And suddenly we weren’t so different. That drew me into a realization that many of the people I had thought were (or should be) excluded from different aspects of our ministry for various reasons maybe belonged as much as anyone else did. I grew in an unexpected way.

On paper this moved me from the Christian Right column to the Christian Left. But in reality all it did was stoke that original fire that had been burning in my soul to be authentically who God had called me to be so that God could use me as an instrument to touch the lives of others–notably, those who (like me) had never really felt they fit in. But in God’s kingdom we all fit in.

So, you see, I didn’t really change. I just became more.

Since full-time ministry in 2008, I have seen how God has used to me to do just that. And while that should be stoking the fires of passion to burn even hotter, something else was happening.

Like all seminary graduates, I had taken classes that warned us about the statistics–how short clergy careers often are, how quickly pastor burnout can set in, the stress levels, the loneliness of ministry, the feelings of let down. I had been warned that ministry can isolate a person. That we can sometimes get so bogged down in the minutia of administration that we lose track of the purpose of ministry. That we can be so busy trying to keep the peace and keep people happy that we forget we’re supposed to be serving the Lord.

Somewhere along the line, that happened. I didn’t notice it, I just woke up one day and realized I was tired beyond all reason the that old fire was sputtering on its last embers.

Before I knew it I was in the trap of trying to make people happy whom I don’t think were ever willing to be happy with me. I found myself trying to make peace with people rather than living in the Peace of God–which sometimes is very upsetting to us. I lost track of who I was. I forgot who I was. I was more worried about making other people content and keeping the boat afloat that I forgot Jesus would save me from sinking.

And so, after several months of soul-searching, I have decided to make some big changes in my life. As the time becomes more appropriate, I’ll be making announcements–but for now, I am trying my best to remember who I am.

Over the past year I haven’t been the pastor I should be because I lost track of who I was–but that’s going to change.

I haven’t made a New Year’s Resolution in several years–largely because I never keep them. They usually involve eating healthier or going to the gym more–but who can keep those things when there is so much chocolate in the world and Netflix?

This year, though, I am making a resolution. Not the tired old clichés no one keeps for long, but one that means something.

I am going to start stoking that old fire all over again.

I’m going to read.

I’m going to be deliberate in what I read. I will read things that challenge, things that inspire, things that motivate, things that outrage. I will read about social justice. I will read about race relations. I will read feminist and womanist writers. I will read about LGBTQ+ Christian issues. I will read about authoritarianism and I will read Deitrich Bonhoeffer over and over again.

And I will listen.

I will listen to trans voices. I will hear the stories of intersex teens. I will listen to Black Lives Matter. I will listen to the spoken word poetry of under-resourced youth of color. And I will listen to the voice of the opposition with the hope of better understanding and with the purpose of never being caught off guard again.

I will get educated.

I will educate myself about the water conflicts in Flint, Michigan and Standing Rock… and in Appalachian coal country. I will learn about Syria and the refugee crisis. I will study the homeless crisis, particularly among our military veterans. I will educate myself on the prescription drug epidemic. I will study non-violent resistance and civil disobedience.

I will remember who I am.

I will warm myself by the fire of passion day in and day out. I will let my bruises mend and my sore muscles relax before taking it all on again another day. I will remind myself daily what matters, the burden God has laid on my heart, why I once found such energy and hope in my calling. I will remember what God has done in my heart and in my soul. I will remember how far God has brought me.

And I will dream.

I will dream about where God is taking me, about where God is taking the world. I will dare to see the visions I used to see, before I got so bogged down in the tumultuous sea thrashing all around me. I will dare to imagine a world in which all people dwell in God’s presence and what that will be like.

Through it all, I will write.

I will write in the journal that has been untouched in nearly a year. I will write here, on my blog. I will write letters. I will write to editors. I will write to legislators. I will write to God and to myself and to the universe… I will write about hope and change and dreams and visions.

Because this was who I once was and it is who I will be again… there is a year of change coming.

After the Election: Some Thoughts and Sketching A Map Forward

A little personal history lesson about me and elections:

  • In July of 1995 I registered as a Republican on my eighteenth birthday. (My parents were Reagan Democrats)
  • In the general election of 1996 I voted for Bob Dole. I was so disappointed “my candidate” didn’t win the first time I cast a vote.
  • In 2000 I joined George W. Bush’s grassroots “Get Out the Vote” movement, knocked on doors, worked phones, and canvassed neighborhoods. I rejoiced in his win.
  • In 2004 I was beginning to have my doubts about the notion that the Republican Party had a lock on Christianity. So many policies and practices had occured that seemed counter to what I was learning as a young woman about my growing faith–but I stuck to my guns and I “Got Out the Vote” for Bush again.
  • I spent the next four years finding it impossible to defend that choice and drifting away from the “Christian Right”, even as my faith grew by leaps and bounds.
  • In 2008 I abstained from voting in the general election. I spent the day in prayer and fasting and recommitted myself to working for the Kingdom of God and for the good of our nation in my day-to-day life. There is more than one way to fulfill our civic duty.
  • In 2012 I switched my registration from the Republican Party to the Mountain Party (basically, West Virginia’s Green Party) as a protest to the shifting attitudes and policies of the Republican Party more than anything and voted for Barack Obama because I liked what I had witnessed from him the previous four years and many of his policies (not all) were in line with my ideas and faith.
  • In the early days of this election I supported Bernie Sanders. I even switched my registration to Democrat so that I could vote for him in the primary. When Hillary Clinton won the nomination, I stood with her, not because I thought she was the ideal candidate, but because she most closely reflected my positions and ideal out of all the remaining candidates.

 

Now–with all that out in the open, I’d also like to point out that for the second time in my voting life it is beginning to appear that the person who won the popular vote will not win the election. That’s because America is built on democratic principles, but is not a “pure” democracy.

In 2000, the electoral college system worked in my favor–last night, it did not. But my support of the system hasn’t changed.

What I saw unfold in the 2000 election, which helped to cement my understanding of the electoral college system (something I had a difficult time grasping in junior high Civics classes), was how the electoral college system, with the guidance of the popular vote, spreads the power of the election more evenly throughout the country. Highly populated areas along the coastlines often carry the popular vote. But what happens when those of Middle America come out in large numbers? They may not be able to tilt the popular vote completely in their direction. But with the electoral college system, they have the power to do so… in certain situations.

The lesson, I loudly told anyone in 2000 who would listen, was that the simple majority needed to be willing to listen to the minority who had been able to use our system to tilt the election. The system protects the differing views of our citizens. What matters to people on the West Coast may not matter to those on the East Coast and what matters to either coast will be different from what matters to all those in between. But what is in between tends to be less populous, but should not be ignored just because they aren’t as many in number.

I was twenty-three then–sixteen years later, at the age of 39, I realize I had only half learned the lesson. It took a second close election. It took another probable chance of a popular vote not deciding another election. And it took me being on the other side. But I’ve finally learned the other half of the lesson.

Yes–those who tilted the popular vote need to listen to the other side. But, those who tilted the electoral college need to listen to the majority, too.

In 2000 we were so busy yelling, “We’re angry and you need to listen up” that we failed to do exactly what Bush had been promising to do: to be unifiers. We ushered in a season of unprecedented polarization in this country. I fully take responsibility for my part in that.

Look at how it has played out in this latest election cycle: people are fighting with their own families, friendships and relationships have been ended, angry rhetoric on both sides shut down any hope of reconciliation or coming together and finding a common path forward. We’ve all developed a “my way or the highway” attitude.

So how do we move forward?

Well, as a nation we need to stop shouting insults at each other across the political divide. We need to come together in wisdom and peace and be willing to listen to one another. And not just hear the words that are being spoken so that we can debate or argue, but hear the hurt, the anger, the fear, the worry, the hope, the dreams. We need to stop listening for the sake of arguing and start listening for the sake of understanding.

That’s the first step. From there we can begin working out a way forward. It will mean compromises on both sides, something we’ve all become loathe to do. But if we set aside our personal pride, we can do it.

As people of faith we need to realize that we are a broad and diverse group. I know good Christians who voted for Clinton. And I know good Christians who voted for Trump. No one party has a lock on what it means to be Christian. If anything, they may a lock on how we live in our personal lives. But just because we may walk with Jesus in different ways, we need to realize that we are all walking with Christ.

My journey with Christ took me from my conservative upbringing and the Christian Right into the world of progressive activism and the Christian Left today. To assume that this moment in anyone’s life locks them into attitudes and understandings for the rest of eternity is faulty. We are all growing. We are all changing. And if we are approaching it as people of faith, we are all experiencing a changing (hopefully deepening) relationship with Jesus.

I was a devout Christian when I cast my vote for Bush. And I was a devout Christian in the booth yesterday when I cast my vote for Clinton. I woke this morning, disappointed and disheartened, but still a devout Christian–and no matter how the election turned out, that is the truth that is bigger than any poll or result.

So–from a personal perspective, I vow to continue my journey with Christ. I vow to continue this walk that began 39 years ago, when my parents held me in their arms in that hospital room and met me face-to-face for the first time and promised to raise me as a Christian. But I won’t assume that the path I am on is the only path to Christ and the only way to be a Christian. I will be willing to hear you. I will love you. I may not always understand you, but I will try to do so. I may not always respect your positions and opinions, but I will respect you and give you space in my pew–a pew that has been growing longer and broader throughout my life.

Professionally speaking, I feel obligated to create a safe space for all people. Over the past year I’ve noticed that politics has edged its way into our conversations in Bible Studies, Sunday School classrooms, meetings, and other church-related discussions and gatherings. It has resulted in some people feeling alienated or unloved–myself included. This morning I’ve already fielded telephone calls from members who are also disappointed and dreading coming to church on Sunday because they worry the results of a worldly election will be lorded over them in their moment of sorrow.

This won’t happen. It can’t happen. In our pews are people on both sides of the divide and every where in between–and not one of them should be made to feel they aren’t welcome or that their faith is somehow less than someone else’s.

I will be deliberate in the days ahead in shutting down political discussions–not for the purpose of shutting down public discourse, but to preserve the sanctity of our holy gathering place. People need to know that regardless of which box they checked yesterday that they can come before the altar and offer themselves to God. Those who are celebrating need to be able to rejoice in the Lord…and those who feel disenfranchised by the current events need to be able to bring those woes before the Lord also.

Our sanctuary is big enough for all of us because it is big enough for God. But when we drag our opinions into that space, we start to edge out God with our selfishness and everything becomes smaller.

Yes, we can have honest discussion about things that are affecting our world and our lives. We can wrestle with God. We can struggle together to learn more. But it must be done with Christ at the center, not our graven images.

Rhetoric that lashes out at a candidate or that candidate’s followers will not be tolerated. Insults will not be tolerated. Hateful language will not be tolerated. Generalizing people and communities, casting stereotypes, or making stands that pit one group against another will not be tolerated. All of those are weapons of this world’s powers. We are going to lay down those weapons and come together, equally vulnerable, equally humbled.

We are all in this together.

As Americans I hope and pray we will learn to live together again.

As Christians we are obligated to live together. We are obligated to love one another.

What I Learned About Fear By Carrying a Stun Gun

A few weeks ago I was shopping for pepper spray (defense against random loose dogs) when the suggestion, “Other people who purchased pepper spray also bought this” popped up at the bottom of my screen.

It was a suggestion to purchase a stun gun.

It was a cute little device and came in an assortment of bright colors–Lime Kool Aid green amongst them.

Since my favorite color was included I clicked on the link and took a look at the product. It was only fifteen dollars and shipping and handling was free… so why not?

I didn’t really feel the need for a stun gun. I had never considered owning one. But it was an impulse buy… like those little odds and ends placed strategically in the check out lanes at Wal-Mart where you are forced to stare at them rather than make eye contact with all the other people standing in line.

A few days later it showed up in the mail–a tiny little package and I couldn’t help but wonder if it would actually work. So I ripped it open and anxiously gave it test fire, nearly dropping it when the loud crack of electricity exploded in my hand. I burst into giggles and set about trying to find some adventurous soul who would let me “zap” them as an experiment.

Later that night, having not found anyone willing to be a guinea pig, I zapped my own leg. Thank goodness I was sitting, because I would have dropped to the floor if I had been standing. Between the “oooohhhs” came bursts of laughter from myself and my friends.

“It’s not so bad,” I said… but I was still rubbing my leg and still laying on my side, so they didn’t believe me.

But fun and games aside, now that I have a stun gun I might as well start carrying it, right?

So every evening I’d slide the device into my pocket before leashing the dog for her nightly walk… and then I would go about wandering around town, hoping to burn off some of my dog’s surplus energy before bedtime.

The only thing I really used it for was as a flashlight (that’s one of the bonus features on it) to locate the doggie doo I needed to clean up. Mostly, it was just one more thing in my pocket and I hardly thought about it.

My usual route takes me by the only bar in town–a little dive dedicated to bikers. There are always a couple of them hanging out on the bench out front, getting some air and puffing on cigarettes. The dog always greets each one with a sloppy kiss and I usually stop for a moment or two and shoot the breeze with whoever is out that evening.

After having carried the stun gun for nearly a week, the novelty of the thing was wearing off and it was becoming more a force of habit to shove it in my pocket rather than an intentional act.

One evening I lost track of time as I sat in my chair reading an interesting book. By the time I was getting ready for bed it was late in the night–past midnight, but the dog still needed a walk unless I wanted to be awakened in a couple of hours by a cross-legged dog. So I took her out. What else could I do?

As the dog and I rounded the corner heading toward Clayton Avenue a young man caught my attention. He was cutting across the Fire Department parking lot cussing and fussing at someone I could not see. It was clear he’d had a couple too many over at the bar and I didn’t recognize him. So I took a mental snapshot of the man and kept moving. No harm, no foul. I didn’t even think about it as I directed the pooch down Clayton and tried to speed up the tempo to wear her out a bit quicker.

It was on the way back down Clayton, heading home, that everything changed, though.

As I as nearing the old Catholic Church, where Assumption Records is now housed, the young man reappeared. He came around the corner at a power-walk pace. He was agitated and he was still loudly cussing, but now it was clear that he was alone and talking out loud to himself.

It was close to 1:00 a.m. and I didn’t recognize this man as a local or a regular at the bar. He was under the influence of something, or at least appeared to be–In the past, my response would’ve been to do the things they taught us in women’s self-defense seminars back in college: make eye contact because most perpetrators want the element of surprise, note what they are wearing, what they look like, their height, their weight, don’t hunch over, don’t show fear, don’t appear vulnerable… but instead I fumbled in my pocket for a stun gun and every thought in my mind was about how I could zap him with it.

Fear bubbled up inside me. My fingers itched to jam the button that would set the electrical arc into motion… but he just nodded his head, gave a small smile, and kept moving.

My hands clutched the stun gun until I had crossed the foot bridge back over to “my side” of town…

At home I removed the unused stun gun from my pocket and laid it on the counter next to the dog leash and couldn’t help but think that when I had my hands on a weapon of defense all I could do was think defensively. A device bought for protection had actually instilled a great deal of fear in my soul–by having something I could protect myself with, I just assumed I had to protect myself.

The next day I happened to be reading John Dominic Crossan‘s Excavating Jesus in which he addresses the difference between Gospel accounts on Jesus’ command to his disciples to “take nothing for the journey–no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt…” At least that’s what Luke says. Matthew says to “take nothing for the journey except a staff…”

Crossan maintains that the staff was the basic weapon of self-defense–what pepper spray had always been for me. It would protect a traveler not only as a club to be wielded against thieves and criminals, but also against wild animals and dogs, as well as a device to lift and throw dangerous snakes (okay, my pepper spray won’t do anything for snakes, but I got all the others covered). Luke’s version of Jesus encouraged complete pacifism. Luke’s Jesus sent his disciples into a world without even a staff for defense. But Matthew’s Jesus allowed for self defense. Both encouraged complete dependence upon Christ–they were to take no money, no supplies, no extra clothes. But they differed on whether Jesus intended that complete dependence to extend to self defense.

That caused me to start thinking about my reaction to the young man on the street. To be honest, I don’t think I would have been nearly as afraid of him if I hadn’t had that stun gun in my pocket. Once I knew I could zap him and drop him to the ground I just sort of assumed I would have to… but in the previous four and a half years, my nightly walk more often than not takes me right past the bar that many folks in town are afraid of. Yet I’ve come to see the bench out front as a safe resting spot. A lot of the burly bikers who hang out in front of the bar love on my dog and give her the attention she wants.

Here’s the thing about those guys–they are a rough talking lot. They curse. They’re a little too loud sometimes. They say some pretty offensive things at times. They are big and heavily bearded and they roll up on thunderously loud motorcycles with their orange bandanas waving in the breeze. There’s a lot of leather and a lot of tattoos and not all of them well-done professional jobs, many are clearly prison tats. But without a weapon clutched in my hand, I perceived them as friends, even as others feared them.

But when I had a weapon in hand I perceived one of them as pure danger.

Now, I’m not advocating for people to put themselves in harm’s way. Nor am I taking a stand for or against carrying devices for self-defense. I’m not saying Luke is right and Matthew is wrong… because I think the truth is somewhere in between.

Heaven knows I’ve taken self-defense classes and that I usually have some sort of deterrent in my pocket, even if it’s just my keys held between my fingers… but when we approach people with weapon in hand we’ve already assumed we need a weapon

What Jesus wants, what I think Matthew and Luke both would agree upon, is that we are to set aside our tendency for defensiveness. We need to live with a spirit of peace that trusts God and that spirit of fear which causes us to cling to our insecurities and our assumptions that other people can destroy us needs to be laid aside and left behind. We can’t extend grace if we have a weapon in hand. We can’t be an instrument of peace if we are clinging to an instrument of destruction.

If we are going to be wholly dependent upon Jesus Christ, we need to be willing to be vulnerable: For the Spirit of God does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline.

 

The Night She Saved My Life

I realize that a common theme emerging in this blog is struggling with depression… but that is a common theme in my life. Particularly over the past couple of years.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and in my efforts to do my part to remove the stigma of mental health issues, I’ve decided to share with you a very troubling episode in my life. Fair warning–I’m going to talk very frankly about suicide and suicidal thoughts.

I can’t tell you what specific night it happened–all I know is it was in December. I had a meeting the following morning and needed to be up early, so I decided to go to bed early. I had not been sleeping well that week, so I considered taking an over-the-counter sleeping pill, but decided against it because they usually leave me feeling groggy the next morning.

I curled up in bed and read until my eyes were heavy…and it all felt like the start of a great night. I was tired and cozy in my warm bed on a winter night. The new puppy (Riley, who was then only six months old–and I had only had her for two months) was curled up at my feet, the old cat was curled on the pillow next to me. I thought sleep would come easy. But the second I switched off the lamp, it started.

Depression and anxiety go hand-in-hand. They fuel each other, feeding into a constant, spiraling whirlpool of dark emotions and thoughts. But the anxiety that comes with depression is, in my opinion, a particularly harsh version. Not only does it keep you on edge, off kilter, and feeling like control is just beyond your fingertips… it also makes you doubt yourself, second guess every thought, and constantly suggests (like a little naughty devil on your shoulder) that you are more of a danger to yourself and others than you realize.

At that point in my life, things were complicated and hard.

There was conflict in the church (which I’ve spoken about in previous blogs, so I won’t go into it here). Some members had left–something that still weighs heavy on my heart and mind. I had shed many tears over it, and still feel the burden of that anger and sadness on my soul. And in the middle of the turmoil my beloved dog, Omar, died a painful and agonizing death… the verdict was that he had drunk antifreeze somewhere.

There are hazy snippets of a memory of Omar licking something off the parking lot at church (because that dog would eat anything) and so I cling to the idea that it was nothing more than a terrible, senseless accident. The dog I did everything with, the dog I loved more than I ever knew was possible, had found a spot of danger in the world of safety I had tried to create around him. I never took him out without a leash. I never let him run free. I had him well-trained to respond to my spoken commands. He even responded to subtle hand gestures. He was all love and trust and friendship to anyone he met… but there was that one little spot of danger in the midst of it all and I lost him.

There were people, friends and colleagues, who were concerned that the timing of Omar’s death had to be more than a coincidence. In the midst of conflict, my dog dies of antifreeze poisoning?

But I would protest the notion that someone had done this horrible thing deliberately. Surely, no one I knew was cruel enough to do this–so I insisted it was a terrible accident, mostly because I believed it was and partly because I didn’t want to believe that anyone connected to me in any way could be that heartless.

But when people are angry at you–angry enough to leave their church because of you, angry enough to create constant friction and unforgiveness–you begin to wonder. There’s a little thought in the back of your mind that you put to rest just to have it emerge again and again when you least expect it.

And so, on that December night, the thought arose again.

I miss Omar.

Before I even realized it, I was on my feet, pacing the floor. My stomach was a bundle of nerves and knots.  I tell myself to go back to bed… and so I would.

But a few moments later I was on my feet again, pacing the floor, not recalling how I had gotten there.

As the hours unfolded before me and I kept looking at the clock, realizing I was going to get less and less sleep before this long, all-day meeting I had to go to the next morning, the more my stomach churned.

Soon, I gave up going back to bed.

I tried to walk off the nervous energy anxiety causes… but it was just making things worse. I missed Omar. I was tortured in my heart and soul about the way things had gone at church. I was hurting, deeply. And while I had the obligation to recognize the hurt in others, no one seemed to have the obligation to recognize my hurt. Which made me feel very alone. I was lonely, as many pastors are. And the one trusty companion who had loved me unconditionally from the beginning was now a baggie of ashes in a box on my mantle…

The new puppy, Riley, would look at me every time I walked back into the room… but it wasn’t like it was with Omar. He just knew that I was suffering and would come and rub against me until I stopped my anxiety-driven pacing and hugged him instead.

It was now the wee morning hours… two o’clock, three o’clock… it almost didn’t make sense to try to sleep now. And so I paced.

In the kitchen I noticed the windshield wiper fluid I had recently bought–the kind for cold winters–sitting high on the counter where it was out of reach of the dog but in my sight so I would remember to take it to the car in the morning.

I glanced at the ingredients: ethylene glycol.

That’s what had done it. The constant urination turning into not being able to urinate at all as Omar’s kidneys failed. The way his body felt cold to the touch, even though he was still alive. The way he shivered uncontrollably. The body aches he seemed to be having. The drunken way he walked and staggered. And, in the end, the head-pressing and the seizures as he lay helpless in my arms. The way his blank eyes would look at me after one episode would pass and he panted for breath.

That’s what had done it, the little voice of anxiety whispered in my ear, That’s it. And maybe you’ll do it, too.

I remember the way he looked when the emergency veternarian carried him into the examination room. He was so weak and so sick, but when he saw me, his tail began to wag. And it wagged even as I tearfully said goodbye, as if he was was letting me know this had to be done. It wagged as the vet injected the cocktail of drugs that would put Omar to sleep for good… and it wagged until the drugs took effect. I remembered the heartbreak of that moment, looking kissing his nose for the last time, knowing I’d never have him lay in my lap while watching television again. Knowing, I’d never have him roll over on his back for another belly rub. Knowing I’d never wake to another one of his sweet cuddles.

Would I? I stared at the wiper fluid. Would you?

I walked away from it–back to the puppy that wasn’t Omar–and before I knew it I was back in the kitchen and that orange fluid was there, in my field of vision all over again.

Would I? Why wouldn’t you?

This continued on for what seemed an eternity until I finally rebelled against that little voice and carried the wiper fluid out to the car in the frigid night air, slippers scraping on the driveway as I went, no coat to protect me from the cold.

But as I returned to the warmth of my bed I passed the closet where I store my camping gear. All the way at the back, in a locked case, is an old shotgun. It was my grandfather’s–There wasn’t anything special about it, as far as a gun collector would be concerned. It wasn’t rare. It wasn’t unique. It didn’t have any notable features. But it had been grandpa’s and so I kept it, even though I myself was not a hunter, a gun collector, or even a gun enthusiast.

It’s in there.  But it doesn’t have any shells. It can’t harm anyone.

No? Are you sure?

And so, a new series of pacing and worry and agonizing about what I might be able to do if things got any worse. That’s the nature of depression-linked anxiety. It’s constantly worrying you with the things you might be able to do if things got worse… and while you’re fighting for recovery, it’s fighting against you.

It was about four o’clock in the morning when I dug through my camping supplies and dragged the heavy gun case out of its storage. I fumbled with the lock and checked–just to make sure there wasn’t a shell stored in the gun that I wasn’t aware of.

Are you sure that’s why you’re looking?

Of course it would be empty. Dad would never store a loaded gun. And he had taught me better than that as well. Gun safety was always top priority in our family. No toddler is going to accidentally shoot his sister in one of our homes.

Are you sure that’s why you’re looking?

I returned the gun to its case, locked it, and stashed it at the back of the closet again. Safely out of reach.

Is it really safe?

And then I resumed pacing.

I paced until I was so exhausted and so in need of sleep that I felt I would collapse. I flopped on to the couch, thinking I could get an hour of sleep before I had to be up again… but as I lay, exhausted and worn down by the anxiety and seemingly endless night, the tears began.

I didn’t feel like I could trust myself.

I wondered if I should call the police and report myself as suicidal. I wondered if I could hurt myself… if I would. I began thinking of all the ways I could steal my life away… wondered which was quicker, which was painful, which would be most like simply going to sleep… sleep…I so desperately wanted to sleep.

The tears flowed.

It was one of those ugly cries–where you don’t try to wipe the tears away or hide the sobs. It just came freely and for a flicker of a moment I thought the anxiety had won, that I wouldn’t make it to see the sunrise…

Suddenly, the puppy was in my lap, nuzzling up under my chin the way Omar used to. I wrapped my arms around her–the little ball of energy, the one that never seemed to stop vibrating, the one that didn’t like to cuddle or sit still–and she let me hold her. For a long time I just help her and sobbed into her floppy ears.

After a while she looked at me and licked the tears away from my cheeks. She laid her head on my shoulder and just let me bury my face in her neck.

That little voice of anxiety was silenced, just like that. That eternal night finally started to move toward dawn again. The ugly spell had been broken long enough that I could finally rest. I don’t know when I drifted off to sleep, but I did because the next thing I knew I was groaning about the buzzer on the alarm.

She had saved my life that night. I don’t have any doubt about it… that night Riley saved my life.

That little voice had worn me down so completely that I thought there was no hope–no way of escaping it. I couldn’t see anything but the darkness of night and wasn’t sure the sun would ever break through again…

But she had saved my life.

I went to my meeting and somehow managed to keep myself awake through the whole thing. I came home and slept the whole evening and night. When Monday rolled around I made an appointment with my doctor and told him about the anxiety. He placed me on Ativan, which I took for the next three months, until I had gained the edge with my coping skills and finally gotten some rest.

But I never forgot how Riley saved my life that night.

Thankfully, there hasn’t been a night as bad as that since… but I struggle with depression, and anxiety just naturally goes along with it. Though I haven’t been at the edge like that again, she’s been there, cuddling with me, laying her head against me when she senses I’m getting tense, licking at my hands when she knows I’m worried.

She saved my life that night–so, a year later I registered her as an emotional support animal. Some of my friends and family laugh about it–they think ESAs are a joke… but I know. I know that she saved my life that night. I had been ready to surrender and she nudged me back to life.

There are countless ways for a person struggling with mental health issues to find healing. For me, it has been a mix of medication, counseling, and cuddling with a dog. For you, or someone you love, it may be another combination… but encourage them to find help. Help them find help. And don’t laugh about what they’ve found–it may be the difference between life and death. Would you choose the alternative for them just because you don’t understand what they’ve found?

Clergy people are lonely. Study after study has shown this to be true across the board, even amongst those who are married–we are alone. While we give ourselves endlessly to others, in our time of need we are often left to fend for ourselves. Single clergy people are served a double whammy–not only do we feel the same loneliness our married colleagues feel, but when we go home we do so alone, and that can be insurmountable. I’ve found having pets makes a huge difference, and having Riley registered as an Emotional Support Animal makes it easier to travel with her and gives me the peace of mind of knowing that Riley can easily be with me wherever I am sent.

Reclaiming Myself

It’s been a long time since I’ve written. Time and again I’ve sat down and written a post and then hesitated before publishing it–always I as terrified that what I would say would not just make someone angry (that is never my intention, but it happens), but that one of my worst nightmares would begin to play out again.

You see, for a while I became the victim of a very specific form of bullying:  cyber stalking. Basically, people use the ultra-connected society we live in to follow your online footprints and use those things to cause harm.

Many years ago, when I first set up a Facebook and MySpace account, I was a student in seminary. I was living far from home and was looking for ways to keep in touch with people. At that point, social media was still new–but it offered a level of connection that email just didn’t provide.

Quickly, social media took off and I wound up creating a network of friends, relatives, acquaintances, and colleagues from all of the world… I cherished the diversity and how different we could often be. We held a vast array of political, religious, and philosophical opinions. We often disagreed. Sometimes we argued (more like debated)… and occasionally I’d become aware of an unhealthy relationship and would weed them out.

But for the most part I loved the discussion and public dialogue in which we were engaging. I had three basic rules:  1) I would only post things I’d be willing to have a conversation with Jesus about, 2) I would maintain a family-friendly setting on my pages (no foul, abusive, or sexual language), and 3) I would insist on mutual respect. We don’t have to agree, but we can still respect one another’s humanity. And if we respect one another, we can learn from one another.

Social media became a way for me to share forward the items I was blogging about. Since childhood I’ve had a passion for writing and I often process things best by writing about them. Blogging was an extension of my spiritual life and a part of my spiritual discipline–with each new post was the evidence of a growing, maturing, always-developing spirit. It was the ongoing story of my journey in faith.

My story. 

Those posts were me bearing my soul and showing the world exactly who and what I am. They were my thoughts, feelings, and opinions… but in the end, they were always me.

One day I wrote a post that angered some people.

Once again, it was never my intention to anger anyone. But sometimes when we share our thoughts and opinions, others will not approve. And that’s okay. Because through those disagreements we can learn more about each other and I was offering just one insight in a much larger and expansive public debate. I never assumed my perspective was the only one.

Though it was not my intention, the anger rose. Feelings were hurt. And ugliness reared its head.

That’s when something unexpected happened: The cyber stalking began.

Someone who wasn’t willing to speak with me face-to-face about their issues with my post suddenly became very concerned about what was on my Facebook page. It seems someone was spending a considerable amount of time pouring over each and every action I took on the social media site. Every status update, every article I shared, every time I clicked “like” on someone else’s post was scrutinized.

If that was where it had stopped, it would be fine. But behind the scenes, there was someone (at least one one, maybe more) who was stirring the pot. The grapevine was often hot with my latest update or post taken out of context or misrepresented.

Two particular examples stick out in my head:  1) I had shared a witty cartoon about how the media sensationalizes scandals and reports on it continuously. It was a great cartoon. A friend had shared it on his wall and I liked it, so I shared it on mine. But I didn’t pay close enough attention to the orignal poster, a group called “Unf*ck the World”.  It was a tiny little detail–literally the fine print that I didn’t see or read… but that one word became the source of controversy. By the time I was trying to fix it, people who were not on social media believed their pastor had been the one cursing because the gossip had twisted the truth around.  2) I quoted Al Sharpton. Seems simple enough–a Christian minister quoted another Christian minister… but Sharpton is, as we all know, connected to a lot of political issues. No, I’m not a big Sharpton fan for a lot of reasons too numerous and complicated to get into here… but just because I don’t like some of what he says and does doesn’t mean I have to hate everything about the man. However, quoting him on a single item from his vast platform of issues, suddenly became, “she’s praising Al Sharpton” to “she represents everything we don’t like about Al Sharpton” to “she hates us and thinks we’re bad Christians.”

And it was petty stuff like this constantly. A quiet week would pass. Two weeks. I’d get lulled into a false sense of security, thinking it had finally run its course. And then, BOOM! Another controversy about some silly little thing I said or shared.

Eventually I became shell-shocked.

Whereas my rule from day one had been, “Can I talk to Jesus about this?” I found myself not worrying so much about what a conversation with Jesus might look like to whether or not the person(s) cyber stalking me would use it against me.

And so I slowly stopped writing.

I stopped processing my thoughts. I let the spiritual discipline of writing about my faith fall by the wayside… because I didn’t want to go through another firestorm.

It got to the point that every time I’d sit down to write, I’d get sick to my stomach thinking about how each and every word could be twisted to become a weapon against me.

I changed my social media privacy settings to isolate myself from others.

But that didn’t root out the problem, so I changed them again.

And again.

And again.

I became afraid to have real conversations–the sort of conversations that used to feed me–even with people I knew weren’t a part of the problem.

That’s the problem with cyberstalkers. They operated in the shadows. I had no way of knowing who was doing it…If I knew, I would have been able to stop it.

And that’s when the depression kicked in.

I felt isolated from God in some ways because I was no longer engaging in the sort of Christian conferencing that used to nurture me or using one of the major spiritual discipline in my life to process my faith.

Which created a vicious cycle:  the more isolated I felt, the more I isolated myself.

I even stopped journaling.

You have no idea how profound a statement that is–I’ve been keeping a journal in one form or another since childhood.

The thing about depression is that it sneaks up on you.

Even those of us who struggle with it, who have developed coping mechanisms, and have trained ourselves to see the red flags, will still sometimes get caught off guard.

Shortly before Easter I became very ill. I’d never felt that sick before. Through that experience I realized I just wasn’t taking care of myself the way I needed–which was the kick in the pants I needed to get back on track.

I began considering the areas I needed to make some changes and I was a little horrified when I began to realize how far into the pit I had let myself slip:

  • I wasn’t reading
  • I wasn’t praying on a regular basis
  • I wasn’t walking or swimming (my favorite exercise)
  • My house was filthy
  • I was only eating one meal a day, and an unhealthy one at that
  • I wasn’t keeping in contact with family
  • I wasn’t keeping in contact with friends
  • I hadn’t practiced any of my favorite hobbies in months
  • I was watching television hours a day (something I usually don’t do)
  • I was waiting until I got cancellation notices before I paid my bills
  • And then I’d hate myself for not being on top of things
  • I was forgetting things like meetings or events
  • I was irritable and angry all the time
  • I would cry over anything
  • I wasn’t thinking past the day–I had no vision of a future

And so I began to make some changes.

The first one was simple:  I started Geocaching again. It’s one of my favorite hobbies–and I hadn’t visited the site or logged a new find in months.

Geocaching meant I was walking again. Often in the woods–where I have always felt closest to God.

Getting in the woods again got me away from the television–and put me in a place where I had to talk to God. I mean, I was right there in God’s presence.

Talking to God meant I started writing again because that’s often how our conversations manifest themselves–through the discipline of writing.

Writing meant I started praying more.

Praying lead to curiosity–it always does with me…

Curiosity lead to reading more.

Reading more made me think more.

Thinking more made me get more honest with myself.

Being honest with myself made me realize I needed to take better care of myself in all aspects.

I’m still clawing out of the hole–I had fallen pretty deep without realizing it. But every day I see more and more light above me… and everyday I reclaim a little more of myself that had been stolen away by someone else’s unhealthy behavior.

I still don’t know who’s responsible for the cyber stalking and gossip–but I don’t worry about it so much anymore. I’m more interested in exposing it for the hurtfulness and anti-Christian practice that it is because if a self-aware woman in her late thirties can be hurt so deeply by it, imagine what these sorts of things are doing to the young and the vulnerable.

I’m struggling right now. I won’t lie. But I’ve got a grip on it now and I’m remembering that God loves me–that God has called me “beloved”.

So, blogosphere, I’m back. Cyberstalkers be damned. I’m reclaiming myself as God’s beloved child!